Life at McMurdo

Antarctica attracts a diverse and talented group of people

January 21, 2014

Lynn Foshee Reed, a high school math teacher and Albert Einstein Fellow for NSF, shows TFK reporter David Bjerklie an aquarium.

Coldest, emptiest, iciest, awesomest. The continent of Antarctica deserves many superlatives. McMurdo Station, the largest of the three U.S. research bases, can claim a few superlatives of its own, including "most fascinating” small town on the planet.

A sign posted outside the dining hall at McMurdo tracks the exact number of people living there. During the summer months (November to February), McMurdo has a population of around 800 people. In the summer, the sun never sets and temperatures are often above zero and can sometimes reach 40° F. In the winter months, when temperatures plunge to -50° F and the sun never rises, the population is less than 200. Most residents stay for only part of the year, some spend two or three months, while others stay six months. A few spend the entire year. Many Antarcticans—as the most enthusiastic residents call themselves—come back year after year.

McMurdo Station, the American research base in Antarctica, operates around the clock.

McMurdo Station, the American research base in Antarctica, operates around the clock.

Many things make McMurdo a fascinating community. For starters, the scientific researchers, who study everything from penguins to meteorites to the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called krill, are an amazing group. They are constantly adding to the wealth of knowledge about the continent and its creatures, as well as changes in climate and ocean ecosystems. But Antarctica also attracts a diverse and talented community of people who don't look through microscopes or collect specimens from the wild. Carpenters, cooks, and plumbers live at McMurdo. There are also cargo and fuel specialists, helicopter pilots, heavy-equipment mechanics, and logistics experts. Many people specialize in planning and coordinating the complicated schedules that keep everything running as smoothly as possible at the station. All these people share a deep desire to work and live in an environment that is both extreme and extraordinary.

It’s a 24-hour Town

While the scenery is breathtaking, don't expect to see gleaming buildings or beautiful architecture in McMurdo. The buildings are strictly functional and most look like industrial warehouses, garages, or storage trailers. It's impossible to tell from the outside what goes on in the inside of many buildings. Is that the laundry or the crafts room or the coffeehouse? McMurdo operates round the clock. Some people work during the day and others work during the night. Of course, in the summer, night looks the same as day. People live in dorms. Nothing fancy. On the doors of many rooms are signs that say "daysleeper," which lets neighbors know that this person works at night and sleeps during the day.

Skiiers finish a marathon on the Antarctic ice.

Skiiers finish a marathon on the Antarctic ice.

Hard work and respect for each other and the environment are standard. But resourcefulness and imagination seem to be as well. Just in the few days that I've been here, McMurdo has featured its annual art show, the McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery, and thrown a huge party with a terrific live band. That same night, an enthusiastic group raised more than $2,000 for charity by auctioning off the right to creatively shave off the beards or mustaches of hairy volunteers. The next morning, McMurdo hosted its marathon, for runners as well as skiers. The participants circled out to one of the runways and back. The research base also hosts regular science lectures as well as recreation and sporting events.

Being at McMurdo and writing about science and life on the ice for readers of TFK is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege for me. For so many people here, however, it is a way of life. Some researchers have been coming to Antarctica for 20 or 30 years! There are a great many people in a wide range of jobs, however, who count their "ice time"—that’s the amount of time they have spent on the continent—in decades. No wonder people consider McMurdo home and are fiercely proud to be Antarcticans.

In tomorrow’s post, I tell you how the base manages energy, water, and waste, as well as how it gets supplies and takes care of the needs of the people who live and work there.

David Bjerklie is filing reports while traveling to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. Track his progress and learn all about the icy continent at TFK’s Antarctica Mini-Site.

To see a live web broadcast on January 23, teachers and parents can join the TFK community at All participants will receive printable worksheets with maps, time lines, and more.

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